Friday, August 29, 2008

US Political Publishing As Bloodsport

Is political publishing as merciless in the rest of the world as it is in the United States. Here, it is a winner-takes-all, no-holds-barred fight to the death -- one with a myriad of fans.

Witness the rapid ascendancy of "The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality" by Jerome Corsi is a deliberate attempt to destroy Obama's political career, characterizing him as an unreformed drug user, possible communist and likely Muslim. (Corsi is co-author of "Unfit for Command," the Swift-Boat book that seriously damaged John Kerry's presidential campaign).

The book has already gone back to press five times and has some 450,000 copies in print. It hit #1 spot on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list after its first week on sale and has remained there for the last month.

As I detail in this report for Bloomberg News, the popularity of the book has led some to raise suspicions that the book is being bought in bulk by a "conservative machine." It turns out the allegations are merely just that, allegations with no proof to support them.

Publishers know that people are willing to "vote" at bookstore cash registers, no matter what a book says and even if they have no intention of ever reading it.
Tell me, is it this where you live?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Richard Dawkins Reads His Hate Mail

Having been on the receiving end of hate mail myself on occasion -- mostly from Ann Coulter fanatics -- I couldn't help but laugh at this short video of author Richard Dawkins reading some of the mail he received in reaction to his book The God Delusion, his bestseller challenging religious belief. The contrast between Dawkin's delivery and the vulgarity of what he's reading underscores exactly which party is being more irrational in this exchange of ideas.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The first Frankfurt appointment request of the season

It's like the first cuckoo of Spring, or the first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau across the English Channel - the first Frankfurt Book Fair appointment request of the year.

The first request for an appointment at Frankfurt I received this year arrived by email on 16 July courtesy of a UK book packager - exactly 13 weeks before the appointment (which I hope to attend).

(Come to think of it, that's a trimester if you're pregnant. Maybe news awaits me in Hall 8.)

When did you receive or send your first request? I bet someone can beat my date.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Augusten Burroughs gets in a flap

Life throws up any number of surprises, doesn't it? I walked into a bar full of people last night and it was almost silent. (That's not the surprise.) Everyone was watching two big-screen televisions on the walls. The Olympics, you're thinking, but you'd be wrong: they were watching a live interview with Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors and Sellevision. (That's not the surprise, either.)

What was surprising (to me anyway) was that Burroughs was being interviewed from inside a small two-man geodesic tent. And the tent was in the bar. The only way the audience could enjoy the interview, therefore, was either to climb into the tent with him (hardly practical given there was already a camera and interviewer in there with him) or watch the TV screens.

Apparently I can expect similar tent-related discoveries all this week in this bar, which happens to be the Festival Club of this year's Melbourne Writers' Festival, which officially opened yesterday.

The annual MWF is one of three major literary festivals held in Australia that regularly attract more than 30,000 book lovers (the other two are the annual Sydney Writers' Festival and the biennial Adelaide Writers' Week). If you're an international publisher, you can actually obtain funding from the Australia Council to attend the Sydney or Adelaide events, but not so the Melbourne one - yet.

MWF is only one reason to make a visit to my home town if you're in the book business. Melbourne has also just become the world's second UNESCO City of Literature (after Edinburgh). No-one really seems to know what this means (you can read UNESCO's criteria here), except that it does affirm what Melburnians have always known - that their city is Australia's cultural capital, with more bookshops per capita than anywhere else in the country, and a thriving independent publishing scene (which includes publishers such as Text Publishing, Black Inc., Hardie Grant, Hinkler Books and Scribe Publications).

Getting the nod from UNESCO has almost made us forget that Sydney was the Australian city chosen to appear on the board of the 'world edition' of Monopoly.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rushdie 1, Bodyguard, 0 - Truth Wins?

According to The Bookseller, ''On Her Majesty's Service," the book by former Salman Rushdie bodyguard Ron Evans (referenced below on this blog) contained "falsehoods in the manuscript" and is currently being revised, according to its publisher James Blake.

This must come with much satisfaction to Mr. Rushdie, who after reading excerpts portraying him as a mini-Napoleon, threatened to sue for libel.

One now wonders how much Rushdie will now appear in the book, if at all.

Unfortunately for James Blake, this new, sanitized version of the book is likely to be a lot less interesting to readers. After all, who really wants to read about the day-to-day adventures of a exaggeration-prone civil servant who was willing to sell out his former charge (no matter how difficult Rushdie may have been) for a few quid. That's a man who can't be trusted.

The publisher, once again, is only taking the responsible route after external objections were raised. It's yet another instance of a publisher taking an author's word at face value when there's money to be made. I wonder: Were there internal objections raised? What, during the editorial process, can bring us closer to the truth? (Fact checking, we're told, is simply too much to ask of a publisher).

Of course, we're assuming that there indeed were falsehoods in the book and that Rushdie's threat didn't merely intimidate the publisher.

Either way, it is yet another sad instance of a publisher squandering its credibility.

Capote’s Queeny Cameo in The Clone Wars

Man can’t subsist on books alone, so last weekend my brother-in-law - the Irish novelist Robert Cremins – and I went to the movies. Sure, if it had been just the two of us, we probably would have opted for the new re-adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, but since we had my two pre-teen nephews in tow, we opted instead for Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

It had to be a less risqué choice than a film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel about “The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder” and his frolicking and philandering among the English upper classes. Right?

Wrong: Two thirds of the way through Star Wars: The Clone Wars appears the character of Ziro the Hutt – a villain who has orchestrated the kidnapping of his own great-nephew, the son of Jabba the Hutt. Jabba, you may remember is the giant alien slug that flash froze Han Solo and always seems to have an exotic dancer somewhere in his line of sight (even here, in a cartoon).

Well, Ziro it turns out is the spitting image of author Truman Capote in drag, complete with a peacock feather tucked into the purple scarf wrapped around his head and Capote’s fey, affected Southern accent.

Poor Truman, as if being a gay, alcoholic, unfulfilled genius wasn’t difficult enough. Now, he’s portrayed as a villainous cartoon alien slug, one willing to arrange the kidnapping of his own great nephew (a major plot point of the film).

Fortunately, my nephews appeared oblivious as to why their father and uncle were nearly choking with laughter. I think they were just waiting for some Jedi Knight to dispatch that weird thing and get back to the blaster fights.

So, what gives?

George Lucas insisted on it, “Clone Wars” director Dave Filoni confessed to the MTV Movie Blog:

“Ziro, Jabba’s uncle, originally spoke in Hutt-ese, like Jabba and then he had a different sluggish voice just like Jabba, and then George one day was watching it and said ‘I want him to sound like Truman Capote.’ He actually said that and we were like ‘Wow!’ ” Filion revealed.


What might Lucas do next? Perhaps he can write Hemingway into the script for the next Indiana Jones flick...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

China, Eastern Europe on the rise in rights market

China, Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet bloc are on the rise and Korea may be making a comeback, according to a recent survey of Australian rights managers and literary agents. Japan, on the other hand, appears to be in decline.

Every year Australia's trade magazine, Bookseller+Publisher polls the country's rights managers and literary agents on trends in international rights business. The results are published in Think Australian, the annual magazine about Australian books that is produced for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

As well as reporting on growing and declining markets, the survey also asks respondents to nominate the most effective conduits for selling rights. While Frankfurt continues to be the number one choice, it's interesting to note that all book fairs have experienced slight drop in recent years, while the use of internet-based selling tools has increased. This is perhaps especially understandable given Australia's remoteness from the world's major book markets.

The top 10 list of conduits follows:

(Last year’s ranking is in brackets.)

1. Frankfurt Book Fair (1)
2. Formal arrangements with overseas rights agents (3)
3. London Book Fair (2)
4. The Australia Council’s Visiting International Publishers (VIP) program (5)
5. Bologna Children’s Book Fair (4)
6. Internet rights databases (8)
7. Book Expo America (5)
8. Literary scouts (9)
9. Think Australian export magazine (10)
10. Formal arrangement with sister companies overseas (7)

[Source: Think Australian survey of Australian literary agents and rights managers, July 2008.]

Does this match your own experience? I'd be interested to know.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The long awaited longlist

Every time I enjoy reading a German book, I wonder what the critics will have to say about it and I always try not to spoil my indulgence by avoiding any of the reviews beforehand. Sometimes I am devastated if a critic doesn’t like what I have just been eating up. I have to say that I was very pleased with most of the reviews I read this spring. How could someone not fall in love with Sherko Fatah’s Das Dunkle Schiff (The Dark Ship)? Now, I am pleased to see that some of my favorites even made it into the 2008 longlist of the German Book Prize. I am sure that I will be as nervous at the author, their editors and their publicists, their family and friends out there until the shortlist is announced, let alone the winner. I do have my favorite(s) and only hope that the critics, the almighty jury, will like what I do. Can’t wait!

by Riky Stock

British Summer Picnic of German Writers

Just back from the Edinburgh Book Festival – and the German-language events were sell-outs. A hot ticket was the double-act Pascal Mercier and Ilija Trojanow, while Thomas Glavinic charmed both on and off-stage (‘a favourite with the team,’ twinkled programme director, Roland Gulliver). A night of Swiss-German with the new dynamic Swiss Consul in Edinburgh, Reto Renggli, Herr Mercier and others, debating Scottish independence, Italian art and the virtues of particular malts –congenial festival atmosphere at its best. Sasa Stanisic, Claudia Schreiber and Paulus Hochgatterer also held court – Festival director Catherine Lockerbie said it is ‘hugely heartening’ to see the work available in English from the German – indeed, and the Hay and Edinburgh Festivals support of this writing stokes delightfully the current momentum.

Incidentally, writers Daniel Kehlmann and Sasa Stanisic were in excellent company at Hay: their stage partners, Joseph O’Neill and Steve Toltz, are long-listed for this year’s Man Booker. All four were selected by Hay director Peter Florence for his special festival promotion of 21 outstanding new writers.

Christopher MacLehose, publisher of MacLehose Press, held a soirée for Austrian writer Paulus Hochgatterer and fellow crime-writer Marek Krajewski en route for Edinburgh – no bodies in his particularly fine library, just quail eggs, champagne and lively debate in Polish, German, and English. The UK, insular? You could have fooled me.

James Hawes’s new look at Kafka and his collection of erotica was launched at a typically stylish Quercus event in The Shooting Gallery of the plush Hayward Hotel tucked behind the theatre where, aptly, many of Oscar Wilde’s plays were first performed. Images Aubrey Bearsdley would have been proud of made for a different sort of small-talk: ‘Do you use pornography?’ was the opening gambit of a newspaper critic – ‘No, I edit a magazine on contemporary German literature!’ I blushed and spluttered. Their next German launch will be that of Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘Kaminski and Me’ – where will the imagination and glamour of the Quercus publicity duo lead them for this?

The impact of German culture on the UK was hotly debated at a recent event hosted by the Tate Liverpool: Christoph Grunenberg, Tate director and curator of the current Klimt exhibition Walter Meierjohann, assistant director at the London’s Young Vic, beautiful and frighteningly intelligent academic Karen Leeder, and I were put through our paces by Carcanet’s publisher, and Prof of Poetry, Michael Schmidt. With an audience of around 80, the influence of German artists, musicians, and playwrights was acknowledged as well as an increasing awareness of current literature and the more gradual, and perhaps deeper, impact of certain poets and writers on British writing.

Feridun Zaimoglu went down a treat at a recent workshop at Swansea University – ‘quite smitten’, ‘inspired’, ‘ah, those eyes’ were some of the comments. His warmth and energetic engagement makes him an ever-popular guest there.

Thriller writer Sebastian Fitzek was in town last week to launch ‘Therapy’ – over crispy duck and mounds of Cantonese prawns, he discussed the thriller scene in Germany with booksellers from Foyles and Hatchard’s, and how his imagination sometimes keeps him awake at night. Prepare to be very unsettled by his next book…

Slowly but surely German literature is gaining a new foothold and audience in the UK. Bring on the autumn and its bounty!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rushdie Condems Censorship, Tries to Quash Former Bodyguard's Book

Sir Salman Rushdie has weighed in on the "Jewel of Medina" scandal, noted below, telling the Associated Press “I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author's novel, apparently because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals,” Rushdie said. “This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.”

Labeling it "censorship" is overstating it -- Random House is a private company after all -- but Rushdie has more or less earned the right to say what he wants on the topic.

Of course, this doesn't mean that Rushdie isn't above trying to get another book canceled: "On Her Majesty's Service," the one co-written his former bodyguard, Ron Evans, that depicts Rushdie -- in his own words -- "mean, nasty, tightfisted, arrogant and extremely unpleasant."

Rushdie has threatened to sue if the book goes to press.

Though the book was due to be published last week, as of this writing, it is still listed as available for pre-order on Waterstones' web site.

Cancelled Novel about Muhammad’s Wife Claims Wrong Victims

This story that has obsessed the American publishing community for the past two weeks has been the ongoing saga of "The Jewel of Medina," a historical novel by Sherry Jones about the prophet Mohammed's young wife Aisha. The book which was scheduled to publish in August, but was abruptly canceled by Random House in May following the protests of Dr. Denise Spellberg a history professor at the University of Texas was asked to write a blurb about the book. Spellberg thought the book irresponsibly portrayed the prophet’s wife as a sword-wielding soldier, as well as offering provocative scenes about her sex life.

You can read my coverage of it here.  

I interviewed Jones once and found her to be earnest, passionate, and a bit entitled -- not a great deal different from many novelists. She defended her right to fictionalize history as she saw fit. It was, after all, a novel.

I also interviewed Denise Spellberg twice and found her to be a reasonable person with genuine objections to the book. She’s an academic who wrote her own book on the topic of Aisha (a book Jones used as source material) and has spent nearly two decades studying this subject, so it goes without saying she was going to pick the book apart. She would have likely picked apart any novel on the topic.

Both women in this argument are correct.

Spellberg should not be scapegoated; nor for that matter should Jones have suffered the fate of having her book canceled.

If there is anyone to be blamed for this kerfuffle, it should start with Random House.

Spellberg’s objections are ones that – provided the company thought there were strong enough to warrant canceling the book -- someone in-house should have brought up earlier than the galleys and ARC’s being produced. How many people were involved with this? Likely, a dozen or more people – marketing, publicity, editorial, production. I just wonder how many of them took time to actually read the book. I fear it was too few.

No matter how hyperbolic Spellberg’s objections may have sounded on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, she doesn’t deserve to be pilloried for having been asked for and then delivering her opinion.

Isn’t that what freedom of speech is all about?

Coincidentally, when when I asked I Spellberg her if there was any novelist who wrote Muhammad’s wives that she would recommend, Spellberg suggested Algerian Assia Djebar’s 1991 novel Loin de Médine (Far from Medina). The professor thought Djebar’s novel had integrity because it relied on direct quotes.

"Djebar allowing the women to speak for themselves, in their own voices,” she said.

Indonesia: an emerging major market for books

Indonesia may not be on your map of the publishing world, but it's certainly a market to watch. The Republic of Indonesia is the world's third-largest democracy (after the USA and India), with about 235 million people, and is currently the world's 20th-largest economy and growing fast. Predictions by Goldman Sachs suggest Indonesia will be the world's 11th largest economy by 2050, behind only China, Japan and India in Asia.

But do the Indonesians buy books? Well, the low standard of living for most Indonesians makes books a luxury item, but its middle class is growing. It's currently an estimated 18 million—larger than the population of the Netherlands, and almost the size of neighbouring Australia. As the middle class grows, there is a growing need for books of all kinds, but especially educational, professional, business and technical books. Last time I visited Indonesia, I was also impressed the number of Arabic language and Islamic titles for sale, which shouldn't surprise: Indonesia is the world's most populous Islamic country, after all.

Indonesia has a decent-size and growing publishing industry. The Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI) has about 800 members, up from 450 members just five year ago. The vast majority are based in the most populous island in the Indonesian archipelago, Java, which is home of the capital, Jakarta.

The major challenges facing the Indonesian book industry are structural.

Firstly, maintaining a supply chain over 33 provinces of the archipelago is not easy and, for all the growth in Indonesia's retail sector (shopping malls seem to shooting up everywhere), bookshops are few and far between, with the exception of those run by Gramedia (Indonesia's equivalent of Borders, WHSmith or FNAC, and also a publisher). This is one reason why IKAPI recently established an Indonesian Book Centre in Jakarta. The Centre is home to 200 publishers, providing a focal point where booksellers, authors, wholesalers and consumers can meet with publishers and buy their books. Opened in May 2008, it's still early days for the Centre, which has so far failed to capture the public's imagination, according to a recent report in the Jakarta Post. Business-to-business transactions are reportedly more encouraging. The annual Jakarta Book Fair (or Pesta Buku Jakarta, pictured) is another way of reaching out to the general public and is well-attended by locals (although there is little rights activity at the fair).

Secondly, textbook publishers face the challenge of operating in a market where the Government is under enormous pressure to provide educational materials at a very low cost, or even free. While the large number of 'international schools' are able to buy books for their students, Indonesia's public education system struggles to make ends meet as it tries to educate its enormous population. The Indonesian Educations Ministry's recent initiative to make educational materials free online threatens the income of educational publishers.

Lastly, doing business in Indonesia can be problematic. Graft and corruption is not unknown, particularly in the customs and excise department, making the simple activities of import/export something of a trial. The legal system can be unpredictable too, making things such as enforcement of copyright somewhat chancey. Matters are improving, however. The Government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has announced a zero tolerance approach to corruption, and thousands of public officials have found themselves prosecuted by the Anti-Corruption Commission (the KPK) in recent years.

Indonesian publishers are certainly buying and paying for books, notwithstanding the challenges in this market. As well as lots of US books (Indonesia has a historically close relationship with both the Netherlands and the USA), I saw Bahasa Indonesia editions of books from France, the UK, Australia and even Slovenia on display at the Pesta Buku.

If you're interested in finding out more about this growing market, why not take some time at Frankfurt to visit the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI) stand at Hall 6.0 E915? You may be pleasantly surprised. If your interests extend to Indonesian literature, the Lontar Foundation website is a good place to start. It's role is to promote Indonesian literature internationally.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bypassing London and New York: the trials of publishing translations

A couple of months ago, I gave a presentation at the Children's Book Council of Australia biennial conference in Melbourne as part of a panel talking about 'Different Cultures, Different Perspectives.'

The point I made, as far as children's books are concerned, is that Australian children don't get a chance to experience and enjoy as many different cultural experiences as they could do.

While most of the books released in Australia originate from overseas, they come predominantly from the UK and US. While there are some notable exceptions (such as the US publisher Kane Miller), most British and American children's publishers aren't hugely interested in publishing many books that stray from established Anglo-American tastes and which don't reflect and reinforce Anglo-American perspectives.

That shouldn't surprise us, and I'm not pretending to condemn it. After all, publishing something new or different is risky, and a publisher's first duty is to make enough money to stay in business.

However, when I travel to Frankfurt each year, the resounding chorus I hear from European and Asian publishers is that 'the British aren't buying our books.' This disappoints them not only because because they have good books to sell, but also because they buy a lot of British books. (In Germany, for example, there are perhaps ten English-language books being translated into German for every one book going the other way.)

If the British don't buy books from Europe or Asia (or South America or Africa), then they don't get translated into English and, due to Britain's long-established and rather arcane hold over the Australian book market, they don't get released here in Australia. The Americans are actually a little more open-minded in their publishing, but less of their books make it to Australia due to territorial copyright restrictions.

Each year at Frankfurt I see wonderful children's books. But Australian children are likely to read only a fraction of them merely because these books were originally published in a language other than English.

That's a shame, because you learn two things when you read a book from a culture other than your own.
  1. You learn that you share a planet with people who have different perspectives to you and
  2. You also learn that you have a whole lot in common with them.
I believe these are two important things for all children to learn, and they can learn them from books.

That's why I started publishing picture books from non-English-speaking cultures a few years back. I was actually encouraged to do so by a bookseller, who saw the first book I found, by Slovenian illustrator Lila Prap, and gave me a handsome order that enabled me to fund its first printing. With the additional support of Australia's independent booksellers, her book Why? has gone on to sell about 10,000 copies here and is still selling strongly, making Australia the second largest market for this particular book after Germany.

Since then, we have published books from Korea, Italy and France, including Waiting for Mummy which is shortlisted for this year's Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, Germany's national children's book awards.

I'm not the only publisher doing this kind of thing in this region. Some books do get through. For several years Allen & Unwin has published translations of European young adult novels and New Zealand publisher Gecko Press is also developing its own picture book list along similar lines to my own. Fortunately, there is no shortage of quality foreign language books for all of us to consider. I am currently looking at new books from Spain, South America, Taiwan and Italy and I never know what I'm going to find next, nor where I'm going to find it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Kindles Rarer Than Leopards or Lamborghinis

Last week, a close friend was leaving for a trip to Papua New Guinea and wanted to borrow my Amazon Kindle to take with him. Then, just as soon as he asked, my mother-in-law asked to borrow it to take it on safari with her in Africa. In the end, both opted for plain old paper books. Both decided, independently, that where they were going, outlets to recharge the Kindle would be hard to find.

When I bought the Amazon Kindle in November 2007, I was curious more than anything. Once I got my hands on it and experienced that initial “wow,” I played with it for a couple of weeks, showed it off to friends, and then more or less shelved it. The utility of the device, to be frank, is limited. I read mostly pre-publication books that I’m reviewing.

The few times I have bought books for the Kindle – I tend to opt for long one’s – like David Wrobelewski’s 600-page “The Story of Edgar Sawtell,” to save on weight. And while I have taken it on a couple of business trips, I use it mostly to read email, using the Whispernet service, saving myself the unfortunate $10 internet access fee most hotel’s charge. (That said, I’ll have to do that a total of 40 times to justify the $400 upfront price I paid for the device.)

I read in today’s news TechCrunch as reporting 240,000 units have sold; and the number of customer reviews have passed 4,000 on’s Web site. And now I’m told that Amazon could sell 380,000 units in 2008.

Well, that just sounds like hyperbole to me and I’ll tell you why: I have not yet met a single person who owns one – and I live in a city of about six million people, regularly fraternize with book lovers, and travel frequently. I've seen more exotic cars in the past ten months -- Ferraris, Bentleys, Lamborghinis -- than Kindles.

Or, to use a safari metaphor, Kindles are harder to spot in the wild than your average leopard.

After all, even Amazon itself only supplied a handful for display at BookExpo America (and even refused to lend one to the e-book trade association, the International Digital Publishing Forum for the length of the show).

This is all a preface to saying that I harbor doubt about the numbers being bandied about by the press and elsewhere about the Kindle. Until I see one other than my own in public, I won't be convinced.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Kindle rumors in Germany

According to unnamed publishing industry sources Amazon might launch the Kindle eBook reader in Germany as early as October on the occasion of the Frankfurt Book Fair. This was reported yesterday by one of Germany's Sunday papers the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

In the same story the paper quotes Ralf Kleber, Amazon's German managing director: "We know that many customers who live outside of America are interested to buy the Kindle and therefore we want to make the reader available in other countries as well."

Obviously Amazon didn't confirm or deny the rumor about the launch in October and Kleber just repeated in the paper what Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos already announced during BookExpo that Amazon would launch the kindle in other markets as well.

Today, the story was picked up by the online editions of many newspapers across Germany.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Small publishers dominate Australian book production (but not sales)

I recently had the dubious pleasure of producing an analysis of Australia's book production statistics for 2007, compiled from Bowker's Global Books in Print.

I'm actually a bit of a fan of statistics (if only I'd know sooner, I could have had that briefly planned career as a psychologist), but after 40 hours of analysis I must confess I was flagging a bit until I made quite a startling discovery: Australian publishers actually published 60% more books in 2007 than expected!

14,258 titles were published last year in Australia by a massive 3937 different publishers (by way of contrast, in the UK, 115,000 books were published in 2007).

This contrasts significantly with the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures, which reported in 2003/4 that just 8602 titles were published by 244 publishers. Obviously the ABS never bothered to count the thousands of books published by small publishers. Small publishers are an ignored group around the world (have a look at the US Independent Book Publishers Association's 2003 survey, The Rest of Us, by way of an illustration), but as production technology becomes cheaper and more accessible, they are producing more and more books. Australian publishers publishing 20 books or less in 2007 were responsible for almost 50% of all book production - about 7000 titles. By contrast, the largest 19 publishing houses, which all published at least 100 Australian titles each in 2007, were responsible for just 31% of all Australian titles produced in that year.

You can imagine that this imbalance in production was not reflected in retail sales figures—in fact it was almost exactly reversed! This is largely due to the entrenched dominance of the large multinationals in Australia, and the widely differing quality of those books published by small presses, not to mention their lack of marketing muscle.

If you're wondering what Aussies like to publish, children’s fiction—a grab bag that includes picture books, fairy tales, poetry and junior fiction—was the largest single subject category of publishing, with 1311 titles. This was followed by adult fiction (851), history (844 titles), autobiography/biography (653), general education (541), management/business (480) and medical/health (451).

I'm not sure what we can learn from these statistics, except that if you're looking to do business in Australia, don't just look at the big guys. They may be dominant, and they may be the ones who can afford to travel to Frankfurt, but they have no monopoly on good books.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

We're all Jane Friedmans

It's not quite as powerful as General MacArthur's pronouncement "I'll shall return" after retreating from the Philippine islands during World War II, but Jane Friedman, the recently deposed former CEO of Harper Collins, told a party of well wishers in New York last night:

"This is my transition party...This is my transition party."

On reflection, it sounds more like something a diplomat of the British empire might say during their own farewell party, after being told they were to be shipped back home for having fraternized too closely with the natives.

In some ways this was always true of Jane. She was, for CEO of a global publishing company, approachable, accessible even. Perhaps it was the fact that she started out in publicity (at Knopf) and never lost the touch. Her career path was a lot like an enlisted man getting promoted into the officer corp and then turned into a general. It doesn't happen all that often and only after fighting more than a few battles. Let's just say Friedman was no armchair general. (Of course, sometimes, she couldn't control her adjutants -- Judith Regan anyone?)

The last time I saw Friedman it was just two days before she was pushed. She was hosting a party on the Fox Studio lot in Los Angeles and, flanked by the two men who subsequently became #1 and #2 at the company, was shaking hands with well wishers as they made their way up a red carpet lined with a phalanx of gossips, photos and journos direct from Fox central casting. And though the party was itself studded with minor celebs who were Harper authors -- Kevin Nealon, Jamie Lee Curtis, "adult" film star Ron Jeremy (who was enthusing about the book "Marley & Me") -- it was clear who the Queen was that night, even if the remainder of her reign was short.

I'm struck by one detail from her "transition party" in New York last night. Everyone, it seems, was issued an Jane Friedman mask to wear as she entered the party. I can just visualize the scene -- a who's-who of New York publishing all donning Jane's face in sympathy. It was as if the crowd was itself acknowledging "We're all Jane Friedmans" and none of us are safe.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Japan's Biggest Importer of Foreign Books Goes Bankrupt

Selling imported books in any country is a tough business: Yohan, largest importer of foreign-language books and magazines into Japan, has filed for bankruptcy in Tokyo District Court, according to a report from Jiji Press. The company, which operates the Aoyama Book Center chain of stores, has 5.4 billion yen in outstanding debt. It closed its corporate offices and let go an estimated 120 employees.

In 2005, the company also weathered serious financial difficulties and closed many of it's bookstores; at the moment, the remaining locations are still open.

It's a shame. Abroad, at least, the Kinokuniya bookstore chain seems to doing fine. Among their newest stores is a 70,000 sq.-ft. location set to open in Dubai later this year.

On a trip to New York recently, I visited the Kinokuniya bookstore, which last year moved from Rockefeller Center to next to Bryant Park. The new space is far more shopper-friendly -- and has what looks to be at least twice the number of volumes as the previous location. The stationary store has moved downstairs to the basement and also seems larger, with an even bigger selection of imported bags and sundries, just the sort of thing an organization tools junkie like myself routinely seeks out on the internet.

And they've clearly imported their standard of customer service form abroad. My purchase of a single Tombow Pfit pen -- a $5.25 purchase -- was encased in suitably small envelope and handed to me with subtle bow. It's this kind of attention to detail that makes shopping there that much more of a memorable experience.

I hear Korea's Lotte stores are even more meticulous.